Not Our Dead; Not Our Job

Everyone remembers the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, the elderly American Jewish vacationer who was shot by Palestinian terrorists aboard the cruise ship Achille Lauro, then thrown into the sea in his wheelchair. Several of his killers were later tried and jailed in Italy, where the story came back to public attention some weeks ago. The man who had confessed to shooting Klinghoffer vanished during a weekend furlough from prison, and it turned out that others convicted of participation in the Achille Lauro hijacking had previously also been furloughed and run away. This, of course, like so many mysterious events, suggested a deal behind the scenes: you leave us alone, or attack some other target, or advance our interests in some way, and we'll let your man out on furlough. At least one Italian politician suggested this explanation. Klinghoffer's assassin was re-arrested a few weeks later, in another country.

Jews--I am Jewish--are particularly sensitive to these kinds of events, because they tend to remind us that, however assimilated we are into the societies we live in, there are crucial circumstances under which our destruction is not regretted by anyone, at least not enough to do much about it. In 1970, I implored a policeman to intervene and stop a biker from beating up a hippie who was not even attempting to resist. The answer: "We don't care what you do to each other, as long as you leave us alone." A good deal of my moral education was gained that night. The word "us", used in that context, was pernicious: it contracted the circle of humanity to the smallest possible set--just the policemen on the scene--and thus supported the thesis that the destiny of everyone outside the circle was a matter of complete indifference. The policeman's inability to draw any distinction between a degraded gang member in a leather jacket and a nonviolent man who resolutely held his hands behind his back and refused to hit back is reminiscent of Senator Helms' "the Hutus and the Tutus", when discussing the genocide in Rwanda. That exclusive "us" rings again in the earnest arguments made by some Americans, conservatives especially, that Bosnia is an arcane and tangled puzzle of centuries of continual murder. There it is again: "We don't care what the Serbs do to the Moslems, as long as they leave us alone."

Teilhard de Chardin wrote that evolution is not yet over, and that humankind will undergo a further process of "hominisation" and will coalesce into a society of mind, the "noosphere." He recognized, however, that such thinking gave potential comfort to social Darwinists and even to murderers; he cautioned that we must all rise together, or we will not rise at all:

Also false and against nature is the racial ideal of one branch draining off for itself alone all the sap of the tree and rising over the death of other branches. To reach the sun nothing less is required than the combined growth of the entire foliage....No evolutionary future awaits man except in association with all other men.

De Chardin may have been confusing the ought with the is, but I endorse the statement even if it is only a wish. The phenomenon of what philosopher Peter Singer has called "the expanding circle" has been traced by historians, sociologists and sociobiologists, who note that we apply our altruistic impulses to a a far greater range of humanity than our ancestors did, and even to the survival of other species as well. There was a time when nothing mattered outside the tribe or village; today, we reach our culmination as "human" beings when we recognize no distinction to be drawn between the murders of any mother's child, anywhere on the planet, under any circumstances. Darwin said, in The Descent of Man:

As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instinct and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.

The poignant Klinghoffer case forces our attention to some unpalatable truths. Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly, incapacitated man in a wheelchair, was murdered solely because he was a Jew. His murderers either assumed his political support of their foe, Israel, or more likely, did not care; their behavior was genocidal, as genocide may not be excused (as so often is attempted) by any claim of provocation. Yet this is the first instinct of those seeking to excuse, or even simply to look away from, murder. A few years ago, a woman who had recently moved to Maine from another state was shot dead by a hunter while standing on the porch of her own home; the local community, perceiving the dead woman as an outsider, joined ranks around the hunter, who was a local man. One member of the community made a memorable remark: why wasn't the victim wearing orange, given it was hunting season? To which the grieving husband replied, that no-one knew it was necessary to wear orange on your own front porch, to avoid being shot. How many times have we all heard the exercise of a legal, but inconvenient right, accepted as an excuse for the murder of the one exercising it? How many murders of blacks in the South caused comments like, "Well, I don't really condone it, but what do they expect if they come down here and protest so loudly?"

What we are facing here is the prime exhibit of a human weakness that shades into evil. It is the force that does not kill but excuses killing, which is too lazy, or self-interested, or passive to act. Because it is important to most of us at least to pay lip service to morality, we discover that we cannot simply say, "All right, a horrible murder occurred, but we are not going to do anything about it; lets go on." Because of our moral standards, we are not in a grey situation; the choices are simple. We must either be on the side of the murderers or their victims. The simplest reaction, rather than taking action, is to dispute the existence of the problem. It is not really murder, because she failed to wear orange, or the blacks were too aggressive, or Moslems killed Serbs five hundred years ago, or who can tell the difference between the Hutus and the Tutus anyway, or Leon Klinghoffer was a Jew. The American reluctance to use the word "genocide" to describe what was happening in Rwanda is a recent, stunningly shameful example. If we called it genocide, we were obligated by international treaty to act; so we called it something else and did nothing while up to one million people were murdered by their neighbors. By refusing to make our choice, we have made it: we are on the side of the murderers.

Some genocides are successful, such as that of the Armenians by the Turks; there is simply no international price to pay, and life goes on. Certainly, there are some human beings who can never feel whole as long as such things are possible. Morally we will be a better species on the day we acknowledge an "is" or fulfill an "ought" (I don't care which) and agree that the death of any human being diminishes all of us. But in addition to such a moral imperative, there is also a pragmatic component (recall Talleyrand's statement that a certain action was "not only a crime, but a mistake"): murder begets murder, and the killing that does not affect you is likely to result in one that does. This in effect is one of the messages delivered by Palestinian terrorists: when the 248 Arabs were machine-gunned by the Israelis at Deir Yassin, you said nothing; you chalked it up to provocation, to a mildly excessive act of war, to acceptable breakage in an act of nationbuilding. Well, now you may count your dead at Lockerbie or the World Trade Center, because you cannot pay for killing, arm killers, condone killing, and hold yourself out of the fray.

And then the cycle continues, as the Israelis deliver the same message in return, not through broadband terrorism but through targeted assassinations through-out the world. We cannot count on you for justice; the French released Abu Daoud, mastermind of the Munich Olympics murders, within a day of arresting him; Italy released the commander of the Achille Lauro incident and imprisoned his subordinates, only to furlough them and let them vanish later. The Israelis have now more or less murdered all of the men involved in the Olympic slayings, and they can say with some truth that they have had to do so, because no-one else regarded it as their business to seek or to punish the murderers of the athletes. Because they were not your dead, and it is not your problem. The Israelis are marvellously targeted assassins; they rarely, as far as the world knows, kill an innocent man; but they did murder an Arab waiter in Sweden on the mistaken understanding that he was one of the Munich killers. Whether one hundred innocent victims are deliberately slain or one innocent man is accidentally slain is not the issue. Because the world will not act, to prevent or punish Deir Yassin or Lockerbie, there will be more murder, there will be an endless spiral of murder. We have already not succeeded in holding ourselves out of it--the World Trade Center is the proof of that.

It is easier to recognize what needs to be done than to do it. Recognize truth. Call murder murder. Put in place global laws that have the same substantive and procedural integrity as our national or local laws. And enforce them. If all goes well, we will all be living on this planet together for a long time to come; it is hard to see how we will do that without an enforceable global law against mass murder.

The world is our community. There is no moral and little practical difference between the bloodshed that occurs when we tolerate a racial murder in our town and when we tolerate one in the world. Just as we long ago saw fit to create guardians of the peace in our town, we will someday all agree on the need to do the same in our world. Because the process de Chardin wrote about in 1948 is in fact inexorable, even if his proposed solutions may not be. Our problems and risks are global; so must our answers to them be. "The passing wave that we can feel was not formed in ourselves. It comes to us from far away; it set out at the same time as the light from the first stars."